Brad Wardell's site for talking about the customization of Windows.

gc-citizens

This is a response to the excellent article over at one of my favorite sites, Explorminate. In the article, author Oliver Kiley laments on what he sees as the current unpolished state of the modern 4X market.

[[..]]

He defines what he defines what he means by polish:

Before going further, I should clarify what, in my mind, a “polished” game has:

  • No major imbalances or exploits in the game that undermine its intended gameplay
  • No major bugs – particularly the obvious and game breaking sort
  • No major performance issues (late game lag, memory leaks, poor optimization, etc.)
  • No underdeveloped mechanics that leave you thinking that something was only half-implemented
  • An iteratively refined gameplay loop and an engaging overall game pace

I agree that the above is a good start to what would constitute polish. But the devil is in the details.  For example, I would argue that Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade was unpolished at release yet it it would have passed this definition by most standards.  Thus I would also add:

  • Gameplay systems are intuitive and highly usable
  • Documentation is complete and easily accessible
  • The tutorial is both informative and inviting
  • The game has no obvious "how could they miss that?" [typos, missing assets, etc.] bugs

So why are so many recent games having a hard time delivering a polished experience out of the gate?

The short answer is: cost. People pay for gameplay, not polish.

Crusade_players_spend_hours_just_in_the_custom_civ_builder

Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade shipped hundreds of amazing features including free-form ship design..and then misspelled "infidel"

 

Offworld Trading Company is an excellent game that was extremely polished upon release.  And yet, many players balked at its initial price point of $39.99 even though it's an excellent game and one of the few economic RTS games on the market. Polish is very expensive and generally undervalued.  Whether we like it or not, people buy games based on feature checklists and not polish.

Budgets vs. Sales

Now, let's have a cold, hard look at the game industry.  Galactic Civilizations II cost $600,000 to make.  Sins of a Solar Empire cost $800,000.  By contrast, Galactic Civilizations III cost 5X as much as GalCiv II and not only has the market not gotten bigger but price pressure is greatly increased. 

For example, Galactic Civilizations II sold over 3 million copies during its lifespan (over 700k on Steam where it wasn't added until it was over 6 years old).  That's more than all the current crop of space 4X games combined.  We're a long way from the days of games being on the shelves of Walmart and Best Buy and Steam has not filled that void completely yet (especially given its discoverability issues).

 

Patron_and_the_Patriot_Pirates (1)

Stardock's popular, MULE-inspired RTS, Offworld Trading Company is loved by many...but frequently down-voted over its price.

So what is the answer?

Each game has its own unique story. 

Galactic Civilizations III, when it first came out, had nearly half its budget consumed by the development of a brand new, multi-core, 64-bit, engine.  That meant throwing out all of the GalCiv II source code base (in multicore, you're not even supposed to use pointers to give you an idea of what's involved).  So the design was a lot more conservative than it otherwise would have been. 

Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade is outstanding and only cost $400k or so to make because its focus was purely on innovative gameplay additions.  It wasn't nearly as polished as I would like it to be but it does mean there's hope in the future (I felt GalCiv III need a lot of gameplay additions and I chose to sacrifice polish for more features) to being find a better balance between polish and innovation.

2017-04-01_13-27-06

Stardock is hoping that modding, rather than DLC, is the future.

 

Which brings us back to the question: What is the answer? Fundamentally it involves an understanding between developers and players about the strategy game market:

  1. No, gaming is not "big business".  Let me put this right out there: Endless Space 2 + Stellaris + GalCiv III combined will almost certainly never make as much money as Start8.  Enterprise software is big business.  4X strategy games (outside Civ) not so much.  There is a huge disconnect between players and developers on this issue.  I see the term "money grab" regularly used in response to a $4 DLC.  Do these same people give their barista this kind of grief? In an age where Steam Spy exists, there's no excuse for people not knowing that niche game development, especially today, is not a get rich scheme.  Developers make the games because they love making them.   
  2. Understand the trade offs. I am not privy to the budget of ES2 or Stellaris or MOO or what have you, but I would bet that the budgets for each of those were well over $5 million.  If you want to know how much a game makes, take the list price, divide it in half for the average price, then multiply it by 0.7.   So imagine a game with a $5 million budget. Let's say its list price is $40 and it has sold 200,000 units.  That means it is only about half way to breaking even on the development cost (let alone marketing, etc.). 

    The new Master of Orion game has sold about 200,000 units.  Wargaming.net paid $2 million just for the trademark.  Or put another way, the game hasn't yet sold enough to pay back the cost of the trademark acquisition let alone the development budget.  But as anyone who played it can tell you, it was very polished at release and relatively in expensive.  The criticism directed towards it is that it wasn't ambitious enough.   Would the new MOO have sold better if it had been less polished but more ambitious? I think so.

    The point being: Developers have to be very careful where they invest their resources.  
  3. Understand why timing matters.  Have you noticed that May is the new release date for many games? That's because in the Steam universe, if you don't release your game by mid May, you have to wait until September. June is the Steam sale month and July and August are dead months effectively.  If your studio has a $500k per month burn rate, you are asking them to lay off employees to delay.   I delayed Sorcerer King until August specifically for polish (and it's one of Explorminate's favorite titles).  But polish hasn't made Sorcerer King popular. It's sold only around 60,000 units on a $2 million budget.  Instead, Sorcerer King would have been better served having a lot more depth and features rather than going smaller and more polished.  Thus, if you have a game that is basically done but could use more polish and your choice is to release it in May or wait until August and polish it, then you should release it in May (we waited until August and had to lay people off when it didn't sell as well as we hoped -- if we had released it in May and sold the same quantity, the studio wouldn't have had to lay anyone off).
  4. Patience.  As an industry, we are migrating from a 32-bit, single core code base to a multi-core, 64-bit code base.  It's worth noting that the most "innovative" game the author calls out is the one that hasn't begun that transition yet and thus could take advantage of a mature code base.  But ES2 and GalCiv III both had to make that transition and it's non-trivial.  It just means that the next set of games will be much more polished.  Going from from single core to multi-core is very hard.  All that code where you're passing around pointers? Yea, that's gotta go for the most part.  That's a really bitter pill to swallow.

 

So the good news is that I think players will see a substantial improvement in polish going forward as the transition from 32-bit, single-core to 64-bit multicore is completed.  But in the meantime, we had to pick between gameplay, cost and polish and we can only pick two. 

Crusade_Resources

GalCiv III: Crusade. Some argue this is what GalCiv III should have been.  But many of those players never played GalCiv II (the base game) but rather started at the Ultimate Edition.

I really enjoyed Mez's article. It also highlights the core disconnect between gamers and developers.  The best way to think of those of us making these games is that we're gamers who happen to know how to code.  We aren't in this for the money.  We're in this because we love the games and the gaming community.

Cheers!

-brad


Comments (Page 3)
on Jun 07, 2017

The OP was about polish vs price vs gameplay. Regarding Stardock's lineup of games. Don't some of these verbose replies belong in the World Economic forum? I think there's a thread called Video Gaming for the Uber Intelligent.

on Jun 07, 2017

Well I would like to ask everybody what were you doing for easter frogboy was debugging text files. I would say features then polish I would prefer, but I have never paid more than a hundred dollars for software. Most of the time I get bargain ben 10$. 

Carl Marx have had good points on economics until you realise before the invention of stocks it required rich powerful people to make jobs and stuff. Do you think it was a bunch of serfs in the middle ages who rebelled against the well armed lord to create cities, or does it make more sense that it was a rich businessman who decided that the man who had the god given right to do whatever he wanted needed to be replaced. A bunch of peasants with no weapons did not take out the lord. It was armed peasant militias.

I read the communist manifesto it lined up with joseph stalin to the teath. Whoever thought the world could function where all businesses could be owned by the average joe invented stocks, but that sounds to much like capitalism. 

Ok you are all gamer's who also know how to program does that mean when the company got reorganized in 2010 everyone got fired. It is easier to think that most of you are just joe programmers. I'm not going to argue that making games on steam is timing. I can't say that it is sad that more people buy software for there computers more than games. I did read a call to make a tablet version of galactic civilizations. I am positive it wouldn't be that hard to modify the original galactic civilizations for the tablet. I'm pretty sure that galactic civilizations 1 will work for the tablet. I'm hoping that galactic civilizations 2 will work for the tablet.

on Jun 08, 2017

I agree with the gist of Oliver's article, and I think, frogboy, if you as a game designer think that 1) Polish; 2) low price and 3) Sophisticated gameplay were the 3 "components", then, with all due respect, I think that is somewhat beside the main points. To illustrate my point - and catering to the fact that Oliver is speaking a lot about 4X SPACE games (since there have been so many in the last 5 years) - I point to an old game by New World Computing called Spaceward Ho! The game has been the opposite of sophisticated, but on the strategy level it has everything it needs to be played regularly (not the least of it a mean AI).

You do not HAVE to be always bigger, more sophisticated, more systems, more screws to turn and so on - on the contrary. AoW3 is such a good game BECAUSE, it's quite limited. The game is based on a few ideas and a very consequent design, so consequent, in fact, that I find myself more often than not thinking about MODDING something into it (which also works to perfection).

I DO think, that the original ES 5 can be compared. It's a design based on a couple of ideas that were consequently put into a game, and it was a cool game. Endless Legend has been fine as well, although it's been a different process, with a much more "sophisticated" design and DLCs and whatnot, and I fear that ES 2 will follow the same trail.

I think, what Oliver says, that we need to go back to SMALLER designs. What I would like, for example, is a remake of Emperor of the Fading Suns, a very interesting game design with extremely complex ramifications (the developers couldn't solve).

What I think we need is LESS, but BETTER games, that can cost more, because, let's face it, if the game is sufficiently complex, and most 4X are, you'll play it a lot of hours and over months, if not years, if the game is good, that is, and once you ARE part of a gamer community, develop mods and so on, it's hard to abandon a game for another one - if that other game isn't either something completely different or the same, but better in basically every respect.

Practically spoken, I think "different" works better than "better in every respect".

on Jun 08, 2017

Jolly Joker

I think, what Oliver says, that we need to go back to SMALLER designs.

 

I agree with every word. You expressed what I was trying to say before much better. We need better designs of the limited number of basic functions, which together produce coherent gameplay. Not big amount of loosely connected functions, which feel quite separate from each other. 

 

on Jun 08, 2017

Yep.

I mean, if you look at Spaceward Ho!, there are only 2 resources, Metal and Money. You need Metal to build ships, and the Total Metal in the Universe is limited (if a planet is empty of it - that's it, except when there is a battle at a planet, then part of the metal of the destroyed ships falls down and can be mined again (mining is one thing you need money for). Money on the other hand, is EARNED by population and SPENT on a) Research (all 6 research fields are for ships ONLY and measured simply in levels) Mining; c) Terraforming d) ship-building (including colony ships). You need to colonize a planet to mine metal, which needs you to build a ship AND to maintain the colony, because a colony costs money, until it contains a certain number of pop, at which time it starts to MAKE money. Most planets have to be terraformed in order to get a pop growth and to make them profitable.

Planets have integral defense.

That's it. It works. Because each decision you make is important. We need to go back again to what is making these games interesting at the CORE.

on Jun 08, 2017

Agree with Auramagma - I'd rather a game have three feature done well that you take time to master over a seven feature game where all the features are simple ie too much "If I do A then B, take option 7 then result 13 happens every time no matter my Food Production/Diplomatic status with whoever", not "I could pick choice A but because I picked 7 earlier which resulted in the Drengin did that then if I pick A and...War leads to Death leads to the Losing Screen! No, better pick C because of the war with the Drengin, big diplomacy hit from the Terran and food production will fall.." kind of thinking.

This is where the implementation of Elections will be interesting and where your Ideology choices should really start to have long-term if not permanent consequences. "Yes, I could expose my people on that Bug infested world to those Bugs for the extra Research, but I have an election in four turns. My people on other colonies might not be best pleased."

And then, of course, how Elections/Ideology/Morale mix. Cue le revolution!

Actually, even putting back Elections would be fine, just work on making the current features mesh as well as you can, then bring in Elections.

 

 

on Jun 08, 2017

Auramagma


Quoting Jolly Joker,

I think, what Oliver says, that we need to go back to SMALLER designs.



 

I agree with every word. You expressed what I was trying to say before much better. We need better designs of the limited number of basic functions, which together produce coherent gameplay. Not big amount of loosely connected functions, which feel quite separate from each other. 

 

 

So... I guess I agree in theory.  And I do agree that CG3 suffered from the sort of 'disconnected systems' issue where all of the various systems didn't necessarily feel like they meshed super-well together.  But then conversely it's game 3 of a franchise so this also has to be balanced with the obvious criticism of "this was in GC2, but not in 3 what the hell guys!?".

For a brand new franchise (like Sorcerer King, or Fallen Enchantress, for example) I think that this is a lot easier in practice than it is as a sequel.  ...

on Jun 09, 2017

Jolly Joker

I point to an old game by New World Computing called Spaceward Ho! The game has been the opposite of sophisticated, but on the strategy level it has everything it needs to be played regularly (not the least of it a mean AI).

Where is Spaceward Ho now?

on Jun 10, 2017

It's been ported for iPad in 2012.

on Jun 10, 2017

ZombiesRus5


Quoting Alstein,

I think the reason you're seeing the expectations of consumers of games (largely millenials and younger) becoming tough is a combination of higher competition on Steam, and the effects of late capitalism.  Simply put, the public is so squeezed financially that $4 is a lot these days.   Add to that most folks do have 100 game backlogs they can go back to at any time, and you really have to come up with something new in order to gain sales.



This is a load of socialist BS. 

Annoying.

If you disagree with Alstein that is cool - but tell us why you think he is wrong instead of just calling him a commie liar. 

on Jun 11, 2017

Frogboy


Quoting Jolly Joker,

I point to an old game by New World Computing called Spaceward Ho! The game has been the opposite of sophisticated, but on the strategy level it has everything it needs to be played regularly (not the least of it a mean AI).



Where is Spaceward Ho now?

In a box somewhere in one of my cupboards

Sadly not playable on a current machine though...

on Jun 11, 2017

Thanks for the detailed insights

I really appreciate the efforts in the new engine, it is the main reason why I don't like Stellaris. The problem is that the galciv gameplay is not primarly designed for gigantic and long games so many players who only play on smaller maps are not impressed by the performance of galciv 3 (The odd thing is that stellaris needs a new engine much more than galciv did).

Concerning DLCs, I know this is not the most popular opinion but I really like this new approach for modern games (especially the more niche games like Galciv, Paradox games,..). I really love playing a game for a long time and thanks to DLCs those games are supported much better and longer than in the past.

on Jun 11, 2017

When people talk about having super polished smaller games (like Spaceworld Ho) they are, in effect, talking about mobile games.  There is no viable market for that on the PC.

What people want philosophically and what they actually spend money on are often two different things.

on Jun 11, 2017

The point IMHO is not only about small games design, but coherent one with different systems interlinked on many levels and working together. Endless legend and endless space 2 and civilization 4 are not small games, but all are very well designed. And I think people are buying them.  

on Jun 12, 2017

Frogboy

When people talk about having super polished smaller games (like Spaceworld Ho) they are, in effect, talking about mobile games.  There is no viable market for that on the PC.

What people want philosophically and what they actually spend money on are often two different things.

 

Even at a $5-10 price point?  Or otherwise at a pricepoint consistent with mobile gaming (I don't buy any mobile games)?

Although I think that Plague Evolved is way too expensive, it seems to sell at its 'almost PC' price point.  And Darkest Dungeon sells at that same price point and I would consider it, fundamentally, a mobile game (simple graphics, linear gameplay, not cpu intensive, intuitive format, conducive to touch-screen control, etc.), which isn't to say that it isn't a great game, it is.  Same with Battle Brothers.  I mean consider Battle Brothers - it's really strange to me that it's 50% more expensive than Sorcerer King when they are both games that are predicated pretty much on the exact same concept and BB looks like it a Kongregate game to play on an ipad (which isn't to say that it's not a great game, again, it is), and SK has much more of the 'polish' that I would expect from a $30-40 game.

I've never played Spaceworld Ho, but it sounds to me like it'd be a great game for $8 ... but not one I'd ever spend >100 hours playing.

I think somewhere in this conversation there should've been some delineation between a serious game and a fling.  The OP article was definitely talking about games he wanted to marry, not "oh that's a cool idea" games that you play for 14 hours then never really go back to or pick up again, can anyone think of a mobile game that isn't gimicky or a game with a really short playability lifetime?

 

 

 

 

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